Web archiving is only half the equation


Archiving websites is not a new idea. The British Library, the Library of Congress and many others, most notably Archive.org’s Wayback Machine have been archiving websites for a decade or more.

The Wayback Machine in particular is a valuable resource but it is an imperfect one. It does not archive any site pre-October 1996 and suffers from missing media and broken links. Crucially, as it’s a web-based archive, archived websites are seen within today’s browsers, on today’s monitors, at today’s processing speeds and therefore the visitor is only experiencing part of the story. A true picture of the original sites only emerges when they are seen in the context of the hardware and software of they were created on and for. For example, the first website can be seen on the CERN site but this is only half the equation. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the webpage, we often forget that he also had to invent the web browser. The crucial point about his browser, the Nexus browser, is that it was a browser-editor, not only did it allow visitors to view the page, it allowed them to edit it. This was a key part of Berners-Lee’s vision. Only by seeing the first webpage and the first web browser in combination can we appreciate that the web was envisaged as a multi-author environment from the outset.

The Nexus Browser

The first browser, developed by Tim Berners-Lee, the Nexus browser-editor

The Nexus web browser only ran on the NeXTstep Operating System, so you had to have a $6,500 NeXT machine to view it. Very few people have seen the first website in its true environment. As part of the Digital Archaeology exhibition, we re-unite the first ever webpage, with the Nexus Browser and the NeXTcube for what we believe is the first time since Tim Berners-Lee left CERN, recreating his original vision of a collaborative web.

What is true of the first website and the first browser is true of all sites. An 800×600 designed site built for Netscape 1.0 seen on a 1920×1080 screen running Explorer 9.0 is a false representation. Only when websites are displayed in the environment they were designed for do we get a true picture of the designers intent.